On the evening of December 16, 2012, Jyoti Singh Pandey, a 23-year-old medical student, was gang-raped and savagely assaulted aboard a moving bus in New Delhi. Days later, she died from her injuries. The young woman came to be known as Nirbhaya, meaning “fearless” in Hindi. Outrage and public protest over the attack ignited a long-smoldering national conversation regarding women’s rights and gender justice in India and beyond. The shock from her death began to slowly lift the shroud of silence and shame that veils and perpetuates sexual-based violence.
Acclaimed South African playwright and director Yaël Farber heeded an urgent invitation from Indian actress Poorna Jagannathan to come and forge a creative response—a piece of theater that would enable women’s voices to be heard.
Drawing from the real-life memories of the participating actors—all survivors of sexual violence themselves—Farber has harnessed the horror and ache awakened by Nirbhaya’s death and crafted Nirbhaya, running now through May 17th at Culture Project. In the play, five Indian women tell their stories about the sexual violence and intimidation they themselves have experienced. Farber interweaves their raw testimonials with a re-enactment of the assault on the real Nirbhaya. Through language, song, and stylized movement, the work is a poetic evocation of the attack, unifying the resulting collective anguish with the impetus to break the accepted silence.
Jamie Maleszka (Rail): It seems that the act of witnessing—generally in terms of theater but more so even in this kind of work—is an active and ethical spectatorship. What is your relationship—artistically/politically/personally—to the idea of theater as a force for change?
Yaël Farber: I think it returns it to its ancient purpose. As theater has become a capitalist venture, it is economically driven more so in certain societies than others. It has to necessarily be something that affirms a certain status quo and also speaks about affirming that to a certain class of person who can afford theater tickets. Essentially it becomes about entertainment. The ancient idea of theater was to heal the city. To allow soldiers returning from battle to feel reintegrated into the society. For people to be able to go about their daily lives because they have sat in those arenas and witnessed the darkest possibilities of what our natures are capable of and come out with this ancient Greek idea of the catharsis—cleansed. So that life becomes possible. The endeavor has shifted radically, with it becoming a venture in which people pay for pleasure, because that is a deeply political act. I grew up in apartheid South Africa, and what we could refer to as non-political theater was deeply political in the context. To do The Sound of Music when the country is burning—well actually The Sound of Music does have a message. [Laughing.] Well, maybe Brigadoon or Sunset Boulevard. Then it becomes a deeply political act to anesthetize or to keep us believing that everything is well. Theater is political. Everything is political. The theater—how we finance it, how we decide which stories to tell—implicate our politics. Doing a piece that asks you to bear witness still has to have an excellence—you can’t have sloppy theater just because it is theater that is a cause. It is not like eating your spinach.
Rail: How did you come to these narratives?
Farber: The morning after Jyoti Singh Pandey died, I wrote something on Facebook. Poorna Jagannathan (the play’s producer and one of its actors) reached out to me. Once we decided what we were doing, we put a call out on Facebook and various social media sites saying anyone who has experienced sexual violence in their adult life—because I already had two actors that were going to talk about sexual abuse in childhood—please come forward if you feel you are ready to speak out and be part of this project. Then I interviewed a couple dozen people. Through that assessing, I first had to make sure that I was covered in a range of sexual violence, so picking which stories but also asking myself, “Are they ready? Would they be able to withstand the heat of this process?”
Rail: As the performers were coming out of rehearsal earlier, I noticed that they seemed unaffected—able to turn the experience off.
Farber: That’s right. I interviewed one or two young women who had extraordinary stories and extraordinary longing to be part of the project, but I could feel that they would not be able to contain the experience and not collapse the defense systems to their detriment. There is a requirement of collapsing the denial. You collapse the distance of the story and you enter into it. It really is the individual that is ready for that that can handle this form of journey.
Rail: Can you talk a bit about your process?
Farber: You know that’s huge, in a way. [Laughing.] Every company is different. It is very much about creating a group, creating an ensemble, provoking memory, encouraging a deep environment of trust that is so safe that people can be dangerous. You have to create a baseline integrity in the room, and it is not about secrecy. It is about: I will catch this. I will do something with it that is worth the process. Lots of memory recall, improv, remembering songs from childhood, writing letters, and then reenacting certain things. This creates a very live interaction with memories. Then I am capturing all that through recording. I have someone in the room with me writing down what’s happening.
Rail: There is no script at this point?
Farber: No. Nothing. In five weeks in Delhi for Nirbhaya, we went from me getting the stories and all the memory recall to writing through the night. We didn’t sleep for five weeks. It was maybe the last two weeks to really construct the show, rehearse it, and open. I write and direct. I am creating on the floor with them. We try stuff. I go back. I rewrite. It is immensely demanding—time-wise, energy-wise, and emotionally. But, I am crafting. Mostly I am looking for metaphors. As people are talking, they are just speaking, but I am connecting the dots and pulling themes out and then weaving them at night.
Rail: You have said previously that during this time the subject/survivor should not be in a conscious state of creation. That is your job. Would they be reaching, or overcomplicating, otherwise?
Farber: Exactly. It becomes very contrived. Whereas when they are just talking and I am listening, I start to see the most powerful way we can express that. Poorna, the first testimony, initially she just spoke a lot about the smells of childhood—the flowers that were growing on the trees where she would walk the path towards her abuser’s house. The smell of his skin and how the two become intertwined, encoded together. So, she’s speaking about that, about smell, and I start to see: what does it mean for it to be encoded in a way that the sensuality, the awakening sense of childhood, gets violated by smells of sex and manhood? But, if she were onto that, trying to give me that, it would develop a very self-conscious feeling. Your business is to be in the chaos, the chaos of memory, because it isn’t linear. It is not constructed. It is fragmented, especially traumatic memory.
Rail: Can you talk about the audience as a confidant, and your decision to utilize the direct address?
Farber: I am not a believer in the proscenium arch. It comes out of a need to be separated from the story and to be a voyeur. The arenas are not built like that. When people sat around campfires, it was about implicating the circle. Even if we’re end-on in a theater and we are looking directly at the picture, are we in the same room as the actors? I am in the room with you—not watching. I am not separate. I am of this community. Behind a proscenium arch, it could happen in an empty auditorium and it would be exactly as it was with a full auditorium. Direct address is a very blatant form, but it is saying: you are part of this. And we are. We are implicated in what the story is.
Rail: How do your roles of being an activist, a playwright, and a director inform one another? Does it all stem from the same impulse?
Farber: It is all towards the same mandate, but it employs entirely different skills. The writer is looking for the word that will unlock the unconscious of the audience or memory. The director is looking for the gesture with the actor that is subtle yet potent enough to unleash what is happening. It all comes back to the same mandate, which is: let me take you to a place that you don’t normally go yourself. The artist is saying, “I am one of those self-designated members of society where what my calling is, what my living is, is to provoke and evoke, and I will take you on this journey for this night.” It has to be done with excellence and skill and great beauty and great darkness, but it is an uncompromising journey into what we are capable of. The activist sees the result of that, longs for the result of that. That is the driving force. But, the skill involved is the artist. It is different parts of yourself that you are mobilizing for the same reason.
Rail: Nirbhaya has been performed in India, London, Scotland, and now New York City. Does each iteration of the show vary? Are they different?
Farber: Not different. These [performers] go away and live their lives and are also journeying with their testimonies, so they come back in new ways to the work. I have to try and keep that garden. Keep watering and clipping and growing and adding nourishment and fresh soil. So that changes. Because how do you come to the work in an authentic way? You aren’t who you were two years ago when we began this project. Also, I am constantly trying to evolve the work to a higher place. It was made so quickly, but the core of the work is still what it was and is. How we keep that raw electricity alive inside the work is a constant challenge.
Rail: How do you feed that?
Farber: It is a delicate thing. As a director, I know how to do that with characters, but in the endeavor of putting the integrity of the people who are doing this first, it is not about: go in there—rework that wound. You keep finding a different door back inside. Each of the actors has a different access point into the work and I will work with them in a deep complicity. Otherwise I am trying to manipulate, and this [piece in particular] needs these individuals to have agency over their own narratives. I have to protect the integrity of that and at the same time really lead in a way that says the work has to sit here, your normal life happens there. How do we meet that intensity? Welcome back into the darkness, but live that darkness for these 90 minutes, and then exit.
Rail: Is the project in a state of creative resolution for you?
Farber: My work never is. It doesn’t matter what it is. Whether it is The Crucible in London or it is Nirbhaya here. There is always that beast sitting in the corner going, “Not yet. Not yet.” I am very uncomfortable with that specter that sits in the corner saying, “Have you made this all it can be?” As I have gotten more mature as a director, I’ve stopped harassing and traumatizing myself and the cast with that question and am now able to sit in what it is. Have I brought it to its highest form for this moment? Some actors like to go, “Oh we’ve arrived.” They get very frustrated with working with me because I am not interested in arrival. I am interested in the state we travel in. We come new to it every night.Nirbhaya, written and directed by Yaël Farber, presented by Culture Project, runs April 16th – May 17th at The Lynn Redgrave Theater, 45 Bleecker Street (at Lafayette). For tickets and info visit cultureproject.org.
JAMIE MALESZKA is a freelance writer born, bred, and based in New York City.